The leaders of Australia’s two biggest states have rounded on the federal government after the troubled COVID vaccine rollout took yet another hit.
Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino said he expected a further hit to public confidence after Thursday’s decision to limit the AstraZeneca shot to over-60s.
“This is a race and as a nation we’re falling behind. That is the reality. We don’t have, from the Commonwealth, sufficient numbers of vaccines for second doses to match the demand for first doses,” he said on Friday.
“That is a fact. That may well change later in the year but right now we are falling behind as a nation in this race.”
Mr Merlino acknowledged supply issues early in the vaccine rollout, but said the federal government had had more than a year to address them and build public confidence in the crucial vaccination program.
“We simply cannot meet the demand that is out there and now we have got this – the advice and the Commonwealth decision that will have an impact on public confidence,” he said.
The federal government temporarily boosted Victoria’s Pfizer supplies by 20,000 a week during its recent lockdown. That is due to be cut back to normal levels by July.
Mr Merlino’s comments echoed criticism from NSW leader Gladys Berejiklian earlier on Friday.
“I can’t control the doses of vaccine we get and I can’t control the vaccines we get … that is another government’s responsibility,” she said.
“What we can do collectively is encourage everyone who has access to to get it. We will make sure we use up every single dose we get – we do have a sense of urgency in NSW.
“I think we need to be far more ambitious about how we vaccinate our population, how quickly we think about opening up, how quickly we think about COVID normal, because otherwise we will get left behind.”
NSW health authorities confirmed on Friday a virus cluster in Sydney’s east had risen to five cases. Its index case is an unvaccinated airport driver from Bondi.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will chair a hastily organised national cabinet meeting on Monday to thrash out what the increased reliance on Pfizer imports means for the sluggish immunisation program.
AstraZeneca is no longer recommended for people under 60 after experts determined the risk of extremely rare but serious blood clots outweighed its benefits.
The recommended age has been revised up from 50, meaning all eligible people under 60 will be offered Pfizer. That includes 2.1 million unvaccinated people aged 50-59.
Supplies of Pfizer remain more limited than AstraZeneca, a million shots of which are produced each week in Melbourne. The imported doses are expected to be more widely available from July.
Mr Morrison, who is in quarantine at The Lodge after his trip to Britain for the G7 meeting, met virtually with health officials, ministers and a high-ranking army officer overseeing the rollout on Friday.
Labor has also seized on the rollout’s latest setback to reignite its argument the government relied too heavily on AstraZeneca.
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said the recent Victorian lockdown and the emerging Sydney outbreak showed the importance of ramping up jab rates.
“We are going to be living in the land of the lockdown until we get vaccinated,” he told the Nine Network.
“That is on the federal government to make sure that happens.”
Elsewhere, more than 840,000 people under 60 who have received first doses of AstraZeneca are being encouraged not to cancel second-jab appointments.
The extremely rare blood clotting condition, which has led to two deaths from 3.8 million doses in Australia, almost always only occurs after the first injection.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly urged people to get a second jab, which significantly boosts protection from serious illness.
“It is really important to get that full protection and get two doses,” he told the ABC.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said doctors had developed effective treatments meaning most people who developed the rare clots recovered fully.
“People who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be alarmed by this decision,” he said.
“The risks of serious complications, including clotting, from the AstraZeneca vaccine are very low and Australia is now very good at detecting clots in patients who’ve had the AstraZeneca vaccine.”